Should Latin America End the War on Drugs?

Should it? That’s the question asked in today’s ‘Room for Debate’ over at the New York Times. Well, depends. Only if it does not want to persist in its present commitment to the expensive, counterproductive and catastrophic-to-civil-liberties course of action that the United States is currently pursuing.

The real question–as most would acknowledge–is not whether Latin America should end the war on drugs, but whether the US will let it. South of the border, the legalization of drugs as a policy serious option remains in hock to the larger crisis of US-Latin American relationships: the oversized dependence of the region on US aid. Furthermore, the massive law-and-order-enforcement-industrial complex that derives its raison d’etre from the whack-a-mole escapades that are its forte, is certainly not going to be favorably inclined. Military advisers to conduct quasi-civil wars in rainforests and Andean highlands, the expanding and sizeable drug-war related portion of the budgets of the FBI, CIA and DEA, all speak against the plausibility of the US ever changing its stance.

In this context, the visible pronouncements–earlier this year in April– of Latin American leaders–a veritable insurgency–came as a pleasant surprise:

The very word “legalization” has been taboo for so long that it was a shock to hear it mentioned as a sensible option by unimpeachable allies of the United States like Juan Manuel Santos, president of [Colombia]; President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala; and Laura Chinchilla, president of the normally low-profile and peaceful nation of Costa Rica.

Given this trend of increasing consideration for the legalization option, the Latin American leadership summit in Cartagena promised interesting, possibly radical, action. The US–in drearily predictable fashion–had already made its opposition known. As Barack Obama stated the day before the summit:

 [L]egalizing and decriminalizing drugs would not eliminate the danger posed by transnational organized crime.”

Of course, that ‘transnational organized crime’ exists precisely because the US has exported its war on drugs, or rather, not so subtly, rammed it down the throats of Latin America. The drug war spreads across borders all too easily:

[Gautemala’s planning minister, Fernando] Carrera, a thoughtful and soft-spoken economist who has an MA in philosophy and political development from Cambridge, talked about the pernicious way the drug trade is never defeated when it is attacked, but simply migrates from one country to another, leaving a disaster in its wake. “What Mexico has done [during President Felipe Calderón’s five-year-old war against the drug trade] is to sweep the problem under the rug and all the way over to us, and in turn we swept it over to Honduras. Honduras is today one of the most violent countries in the world, and the principal thoroughfare for drugs on their way from the producing countries in the south to the consuming countries in the north.

(What was interesting about the Cartagena summit that followed was the grim focus by the US media on the Secret Service-n-prostitutes scandal, and on ‘Swillary.’ Indeed, had I not been reminded about Molina’s announcement and the US opposition to it, I might have forgotten about the pro-legalization initiative entirely, so engrossed was I by the salacious details of the Secret Service’s romps and the amazing news that adults drink beer after work.)

The US did not actively intervene at the summit to derail talk of legalization, but it did next the best thing: recommended its further ‘study.’ So, the final word for now–discussion of the legalization initiative is in the hands of the OAS (‘a recognized burial ground for sweeping initiatives of any kind’)–remains with the US President:

The United States is not going to legalize or decriminalize drugs…because doing so would have serious negative consequences, in all our countries, in terms of health and public safety.

Read that and weep. There is no way Obama can possibly believe it, yet parrot it he will, relentlessly, to the continued detriment of this country and its neighbors.

Note: All quotes are from Alma Guillermoprieto’s recent article in the New York Review of Books [linked to above in the reference to the pro-legalization announcement made by Latin American leaders].

The Problem with Nuclear Non-Proliferation

In ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out‘, (London Review of Books, 23 February 2012, Vol 34, No.4, pp 37-38), Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka provide us an important indictment of the so-called ‘non-proliferation complex’, which is,

[A] loose conglomeration of academic programmes, think tanks, NGOs, charitable foundations and government departments, all formally dedicated to the reduction of nuclear danger. Its twin goals are to stop the spread of nuclear technologies to small, anti-Western regimes and, eventually, to abolish nuclear weapons altogether.

This ‘complex’ does not work, if the extent of nuclear proliferation and the size of nuclear weapons arsenals worldwide is any indication. But more problematically, the ‘complex’ is,

[A] classic liberal institution that pretends to universalism while being in hock to the world’s most powerful states. Moreover, its pursuit of modest, ‘realistic’ goals has helped to undermine the very possibility of substantial action on nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling-block to nonproliferation has been the failure of the ‘non-proliferation complex’ to internalize a simple truth:

[I]f smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical – reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own.

The self-serving hypocrisy of nuclear weapon states, and its implicit acceptance by the ‘complex’ is a long-running farce, depressingly well-known to most.  This hypocrisy is the single most important factor in ensuring that non-proliferation is a non-starter; it ensures the non-proliferation manifesto is foundationally malformed.

For instance, Craig and Ruzicka note the announcement, by the  Obama administration, of its commitment–as part of a deal to secure approval of the ratification of the New Start treaty between Russia and the US in 2010–of $85 billion to the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal over the next ten years. This news attracted little critique from the ‘complex’, which seems to prefer a) taking a deferential attitude towards the major powers, a holdover from an early stance adopted during the Cold War and b) concentrating on the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty and its attendant conferences.  (The NPT allows its signatories to acquire technologies for power production that cannot be distinguished easily from those used for weapons production; it thus allows the ‘spreading of the bomb without quite breaking the rules.’ )

The relationship between the major powers and the ‘complex’ has been hammered out at the NPT conferences; nonproliferation efforts now find their primary focus directed outward at control worldwide, instead of inwards at weapons reduction programs. This has damaging consequences:

[T]he complex’s single-minded focus on keeping the bomb out of the hands of anti-Western dictators provided the neoconservative architects of the sanctions and the [Iraq] war with a useful liberal justification for their campaigns. If you keep calling for something, eventually someone might take you seriously: the complex kept its head down during the run-up to war in 2002-3 because stressing the dangers of nuclear proliferation can’t easily be reconciled with opposition to military action intended to do something real about them. We might see the same thing happen again over Iran.

Without major disarmament by nuclear powers, and the concomitant reduction in the hypocrisy that currently underwrites nuclear non-proliferation efforts, prospects for such a ghastly revisitation appear bright.

Getting the Living and the Dead Wrong: Mistaken Censuses and Transient Fame

Sometimes I find that someone I had counted among the living has passed away a while ago.  After the initial easy-to-understand embarrassment—for I have revealed my lack of knowledge of the world of the living after all–I often feel an absurd personal regret of the No-it-cannot-be-I-hardly-knew-ye variety. The regret is mostly absurd because the departed person is invariably a public figure of some kind, with whom there was little chance of personal contact. (In some cases, the regret can be a bit more substantive: perhaps a chance for a meaningful intellectual encounter has been missed. A few years ago, I proposed RJ Hollingdale as a speaker for an academic event, only to find out he had been gone since 2001. )

Conversely, when I find that someone I had imagined dead and departed turns out to be still alive, I feel a little shamed: by reckoning my fellow human being dead when still alive, I have carried out premature burial, consigned the living to a too-hastily-prepared grave, so minimized the living, so consigned them to the horizon of my acknowledgement of their lives that they might as well be dead. (While it is a persistent—and revealing–fantasy for some to wish to attend their own funeral to evaluate the quality of the eulogies and the extent of attendance, being thought of as dead is a considerably less commonly articulated desire. It smacks too much of explicit rejection by the living.)

But I wonder too, if the fact that a public figure, once famous, and then obscure again, is the most likely to be reckoned among the prematurely dead, or the persistently living, says something about the effects of transient fame. Once its glare is removed, the shadow life that follows may result in even more obscurity than that which preceded the fame. Fame may shine a dazzling spotlight, resulting in a new ‘examined life,’ one whose shadows promise obscurity with the removal of that light’s glare.  (Sometimes it may not be for any lack of fame that I might reckon the still-living as dead; for instance, I thought Tony Bennett was not with us anymore, only to find out that not only is he alive and kicking, but recording music with Lady Gaga as well. This, I think, says more about my taste in music than anything else.)

The kind of once-famous-now-obscure figure I have in mind should be familiar to most: the hits done and dusted, the appeal withered, our hero ‘retires’ to the margins try his hand at something else, or even worse, tries to recapture notoriety. Nothing works; fame is gone, and the attentions of those who ensured the limelight’s brightness are now, already, all-too-quickly diverted elsewhere. (Sometimes, of course, the rejection of the public life can be deliberate; the retreat and the seclusion is voluntary, to be continued, relentlessly, till the newspapers and the milk bottles pile up, and the neighbors call the police and the ambulance service.)

The blessings of fame have always been mixed; an ambiguous placement in the roster of the living is decidedly among its more peculiar ones.

‘Swiping in’ a Vet on Memorial Day

Every New York City subway rider, at some point or the other in his riding career, becomes the ‘target’ of a solicitation, a beg, or a panhandle. And all around us, signs–put up by the MTA–tell us: don’t indulge them, don’t give; if you really want to, there are plenty of charities that would be happy to relieve you of your dollars and pennies; just don’t add to the ‘disorder’ on the trains. There are also, in addition, warnings from the MTA about not misusing our unlimited-ride Metrocards: don’t give away free rides, don’t give anyone a ‘free swipe.’

To some extent, I have internalized these warnings. I rarely give money on the subway; somehow, I become oblivious to the beseeching look, the plaintive appeal, the witty–and sometimes musical–plea for support and sustenance, for the alm not to be spent on drugs–the horror, oh, the horror!–but only on food for the family and children.

But I find it harder to resist the plea for the ‘free ride,’ the ‘swipe’ with the Metrocard. I have unlimited rides on the Metrocard; I’ve already spent my money ($104 a month) for it; the MTA has its money; why not give someone a free ride on it, especially when I’m done riding? (I”m usually asked for a swipe when I exit from a subway turnstile; the putative rider stands there, patiently, asking for swipes as passengers exit; the Metrocard can only be reused after an eighteen minute gap, so there is a good chance that my card is usable again, and more to the point, it is unlikely that I will use it again so soon after having finished a ride.’)

The economic argument against handing out free rides is clear and strong: every single ride thus denies revenue to the MTA. And the more revenue the MTA loses, the greater the chance that it will hike subway fares again, and give us all the collective middle finger. So why hurt yourself and everyone else by a misplaced act of charity?

Well, the MTA does pretty well with unused unlimited Metrocard fares. (These, among other unused Metrocard rides add up to $52 million a year.) But sometimes, our reasons for taking an action can find their grounding in something far more elemental.

This morning, as I headed toward my gym to participate in Memorial Day festivities (a brutal workout, followed by a barbecue and beer), I exited the Seventh Avenue turnstile and was asked for a ‘swipe.’ I mumbled a ‘No’ as I headed for the exits. Then I turned and headed back; I had only been asked for a swipe and the man who had asked me appeared to be wearing an olive-green jacket with pins and insignia. As I approached him, I detected the distinctive aroma of those who live on the streets, who have no home. Perhaps he was a veteran, but one not treated so kindly by the non-service life. Perhaps he wasn’t, but wanted to be one. In any case, it was Memorial Day and all the economic arguments against denying the MTA revenue didn’t make that much sense any more.

I ‘swiped’ him in, wished him well, and went on my way, wondering about my dispensation of illegal acts of kindness to someone who might be among those being honored on this Memorial Day, 2012.

PS: To the MTA: Sorry about that.

PPS: Edited to add link and change 55 to 52 in MTA figures above.

Customer Relations in the Modern University

Satadru Sen has posted an interesting piece on his experiences teaching history at Queens College in CUNY. (I highly recommend Satadru’s blog; every single essay on there is literate and thoughtful.)  Because I wrote recently on completing ten years of teaching at Brooklyn College–and what I’ve learned from it— I thought I’d offer some thoughts triggered by Satadru’s article.

Many of the frustrations Satadru describes are familiar ones, some caused by the mysterious-to-faculty responses that  students have to syllabic requirements, some by the structure of CUNY’s pedagogical arrangements, which are geared toward administrative and bureaucratic efficiency. The latter, of course, is a common perception of the modern  university, which more often than not, is run in ways that have little to do with teaching or learning but everything to do with ‘management’, ‘maximizing resource utilization’ and other imperatives orthogonal to the educational process. (Consider, for instance, the three-hour night class, considered essential to the working student; I often wonder about its pedagogical efficacy.)

It is the students’ encounter with the university’s ‘system,’ which contributes to some of the students responses that Sen notes in his post; they have been exposed to the relentlessly bureaucratic structure of their supposed ‘institution of learning’ from the day they wandered onto its campus, and slowly but surely, they have internalized the most common response to the deadly impress of a grey, impersonal, bland and banal bean-counting culture: a state which is a halfway-house between reluctant acceptance and irate rejection. They sense the lack of concern with their education in the university’s arrangements; they respond accordingly. So, over the years, I’ve come to suspect that my syllabi, in which I strive for comprehensiveness as I detail the grade requirements, the reading list, and the varied administrative parameters by which I will conduct the class during the semester, are often viewed as just more ‘detail’, more official, and thus officious, requirements, which in the end do nothing more but build up just another fantastically complicated obstacle course, one to be deftly maneuvered through somehow.

The modern university too often functions like a modern corporation. (I don’t like comparing the university to a customer-serving corporation, but they insist on that analogy, so I feel duty-bound to comply.) In particular, it functions like those, that while ostensibly concerned about their ‘customers’,  are only really interested in the ‘first sale.’ After that you are a number to be quickly, efficiently, manipulated. Given this resemblance, it would make sense to note that customer-corporation relations are, and have been, at a notable low for a while. Part of the reason is that companies care little for customer service; it isn’t really an efficient money-maker.

And so,

The real problem may be that companies have a roving eye: they’re always more interested in the customers they don’t have. So they pour money into sales and marketing to lure new customers while giving their existing ones short shrift, in an effort to minimize costs and maximize revenue. [This is ] the “efficient relationship paradox”: it’s only once you’ve actually become a customer that companies put efficiency ahead of attention, with the result that a company’s current customers are often the ones who experience its worst service. Economically, this makes little sense; it’s more expensive to acquire a new customer than to hold on to an old one, and, these days, annoyed customers are quick to take their business elsewhere. But, because most companies are set up to focus on the first sale rather than on all the ones that might follow, they end up devoting all their energies to courting us, promising wonderful products and excellent service. Then, once they’ve got us, their attention wanders….

Apparently, if you try too hard to aspire to corporation-hood, you inherit its blemishes as well as its balance-sheets.

The Autumn as Inducer of Childhood Remembrances

In ‘The Innocent,’ one of the twenty-one short stories in Graham Greene‘s Twenty-One Stories (Penguin, 1970), the narrator of the tale notes,

On an autumn evening, one remembers more of childhood than at any other time of year…

Our hero is correct. Or at least, this rings true to me. Why might that be? Our story-teller does not say any more, leaving us to entertain our own hypotheses at leisure.

So, autumn evenings. The light changes–in the right latitudes, quite dramatically–, the shadows’ contours transform, the trees morph, chameleon-like, through several shades of foliage–and again, in the right latitudes, exquisitely, leaving most of us grasping for the right verbal arsenal to do justice to their beauty. The heat of the summer drops off; there are hints of it in the high afternoon in the early part of the autumn, but the mornings and evenings bring subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle hints of the coming chill. (Here on the American East Coast, these changes are vividly manifest every year.)

Now, of all these changes, I think the crucial one, the one that sparks our narrator’s rumination above, is the changing light. And that is because I think that when we recall our childhood, we conjure up images bathed in a particular light; the chambers of that nostalgia have their own peculiar illumination, one writ into the deepest recesses of our memories by our infant encounters with the sunlight of our homelands. The change of summer light into the autumn shadings, which produces its own melancholia, is also thus the trigger for the release of these memories and their associations.

All of this makes my personal resonance with the line above a little peculiar. I live on the American East Coast but my childhood was spent in India, where the light is very different. And one of the primary drivers of my often-desperate urge to return to India is to feel the Indian light again, to feel the sun’s rays–and they can be harsh, let me tell you–fall on my skin, my eyes, and evoke, somehow, in some cranial cranny, a treasured image, sound or smell, that by dint of my usual geographical location, has become too deeply buried and inaccessible.  (Years ago, after I first moved to Australia, my good friend Eric Martin–a migrant from France and mathematical logician par excellence–said to me that one of the most important determinants in memories of homelands being perennially prickly companions of the immigrant was the light of his erstwhile home, impressed permanently into his traveling self.)

But even for an immigrant like me, one who now spends his life moving in a chamber lit by a very different lamp, all that is needed for the recall of childhood is the melancholia that floods in with the softer light; as that mood surfaces, the mind senses the light as the cause, and the most fundamental of the exile’s thoughts are pushed to the forefront: remembrances of lands and times long gone.

Small wonder then, that the autumn, even though formerly associated with festivals and the welcoming of the rejuvenating winter after the enervating summer, and now with heralding the icy East Coast winter, still retains its ability to take me back to that place in the mind.

Geertz, Trilling and Fussell on the Transformation of the Moral Imagination

In ‘Found in Translation: Social History of Moral Imagination’, (from Local Knowledge: Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983, pp 44-45), Clifford Geertz writes,

Whatever use the imagination productions of other peoples–predecessors, ancestors, or distant cousins–can have for our moral lives, then, it cannot be to simplify them. The image of the past (or the primitive, or the classic, or the exotic) as a source of material wisdom, a prosthetic corrective for a damaged spiritual life–an image that has governed a great deal of humanist thought and education–is mischievous because it leads us to expect our uncertainties will be reduced by access to thought worlds constructed along lines alternative to our own, when in fact they will be multiplied….the growth in range a powerful sensibility gains from an encounter with another one, as powerful or more, comes only at the expense of its inward ease.

Geertz wrote this in response to not just anthropological theorizing and speculation, both amateur and professional–about ‘other peoples’–but to the worries expressed by Lionel Trilling about ‘the basic assumption of humanistic literary pedagogy’  (in ”Why We Read Jane Austen’ Times Literary Supplement, 5 March 1976, pp 250-252) that no matter how great the distance in place, period and sensibility between us and those that inhabit the pages of literature, the author could  bring us closer, illuminate our lives, and make us aware of who we ‘already were.’ Trilling’s discomfort with this assumption arose from his feeling–as Geertz notes–that

[T]he significant works of the human imagination…speak with equal power to the consoling piety that we are all alike to one another and to the worrying suspicion that we are not.

So the ‘social history of the moral imagination’ is a task of considerable hermeneutic difficulty, one that must confront the difficulties it poses in the ‘instabilities’ it creates, all in an effort to make them relevant to the ‘social frame’ we inhabit.

The working example of such an engagement that Geertz provides is the recently departed Paul Fussell‘s The Great War and Modern Memory, which took on the archaic literary frameworks that were first utilized in perceiving and recollecting the First World War, and then later, were extensively reconfigured to amend–and give shape to–the modern imagination. Fussell’s ambitious conclusion was that the predominance of the ‘ironic’ in the modern was a painful reaction to the Great War, that what we call the ‘modern understanding’  is a sensibility that had found pre-existing literary, poetic and imaginative resources inadequate to do justice to the physical and emotional realities of the Great War’s torn and foul landscapes, soaked by the blood of millions of young men, sent to their deaths by incompetent war pigs.  This imagination was ‘shattered into thousand pieces of sour irony’ by this encounter; the modern imagination was the result of putting these pieces back together, over an extended period of time, painfully and slowly, by those who were present, and those who were not.

Geertz uses this history to suggest that,

[T]his is how anything imaginational grows in our minds, is transformed, socially transformed, from something we merely know to exist or have existed, somewhere or the other, to something which is properly ours, a working force in our common consciousness.

In remembering Paul Fussell, we should thank him for having documented such a transformation as vividly and powerfully as he did.

Note: I intend to write a few more notes here in response to Geertz’s collection.